Why Experimentation Matters More Than Ever

Too often, innovation centers are little more than steel and glass monuments to a company’s greatness. Needed: IT with less hubris and smarter thinking

By Kevin Bolen

“Please review the document in detail and sign if you are comfortable with the terms. Those who do not sign will not be permitted on the tour.”

I received this greeting back in 2005 as I embarked on two separate visits to the future. Although conducted months apart on separate corporate campuses halfway around the world from each other, both tours began with nearly identical lectures from rather severe individuals on the need for complete secrecy. We were about to witness tomorrow and beyond—just as soon as we read and signed a detailed lifetime confidentiality agreement in front of witnesses. Having been duly sworn in, we stepped through the looking glass.

At every predetermined stop on our tours—one at Microsoft‘s (MSFT) Home of the Future and the other at Deutsche Telekom’s (DT) Future Center—we were given a chance to hear a well-rehearsed description of an engineering marvel, and see and experience these wonders for ourselves. Not clunky prototypes scattered around a lab, either. We were interacting with products and form factors that looked ready to ship, all arranged in high-gloss environments designed to show us mere mortals what the engineering gods at these two technology powerhouses were preparing to bestow on us.

Because I know those confidentiality agreements had no expiration date and because I still have nightmares about German security personnel, I will not divulge in detail what I saw those days. Rather, I will share what I didn’t see, as I feel there are far greater lessons there.

What I didn’t see on either tour was any type of experimentation. No one from the host companies even took note of our reactions. In each instance, the group consisted of approximately 20 upper-income, IT-savvy, twentysomething-to-fortysomething consumers. Given the pervasive nature of what was being displayed, and the anticipated retail price of some of the gadgets, I have to believe we made up at least a portion of the key target demographic for these “innovations.”


Yet not one word of our comments was recorded as feedback for future design considerations. There was no debriefing after the tour to capture our reactions or ideas, just a polite thank you and a reminder about confidentiality. They didn’t want our opinions, just our awe and supplication.

The hubris on display was astounding. These were not innovation centers, they were the corporate equivalents of the Roman Coliseum, steel and glass monuments to each company’s own greatness—and eye candy for the chosen few who were permitted a glimpse into the future.

Flashing forward nearly five years, the flaw in this strategy has been exposed. Technology has migrated from a creation > channel > consumer model to a conceive <> co-design <> co-exist model. New, easy-to-use tools and social media frameworks enable people to see products not just for what they are, but for what they can become, and then help to make their vision a functioning reality.

What does this mean for the traditional technology development model? It, too, is undergoing a reimagining as the relationship between user and producer is again redefined.

In this dynamic, co-ownership world in which the customer is also the co-designer and business partner, experimentation in the IT sector takes on new meaning. It is no longer about displaying a screen shot to gauge input on a new UI layout. Rather, it’s about demonstrating a willingness to experiment in the first place and then providing a vehicle to experiment with the value proposition itself and the business model that enables it. Experimenting in the new norm of the IT industry must therefore follow three core rules:

Engage early. The market won’t wait for you to get it right. It will hack you and force the product to bend to its will. Don’t fight this, embrace it.

Apple’s (AAPLiPhone is a strong example of this new ethos. Apple didn’t seek to conceive and perfect all the ways in which someone might want to use the iPhone. The company simply provided the development and publishing platform for others and let the market sort out which offerings were most desired. Now, the library of apps, not the phone’s core functionality—which is actually on the receiving end of a good many complaints regarding sound quality and dropped calls—otivates people’s purchase decisions and keeps the iPhone ahead of similarly designed touchscreen devices.

Treat the market as a business partner. An expanding channel is mutually beneficial. Allow others the chance to experiment with their ideas and in turn create expansive new sources of revenue for you. Google’s (GOOG) release of Maps and other functionality for use by real estate sites and others willing to display ads alongside the map is another example of rethinking the business model. Google essentially enabled others to create profitable businesses using its functionality. In so doing, the company created thousands of new distribution channels for its ads.

Don’t try to own it all. You have limits, the market does not. Define your differentiated space and allow others to sublet and improve upon the rest of the landscape.

37signals’ decision to release its homegrown development platform, Ruby on Rails, was inspired. The company proved the platform’s effectiveness on its own portfolio of apps. Knowing it would be similarly effective for all manner of Web apps, 37signals acknowledged that it would design just a fraction of these. In choosing to turn the platform loose, 37signals’ technology now serves at the heart of growing businesses such as Twitter and Hulu.

When I reflect on this new reality, I often wonder whether those innovation centers designed to showcase the way things will be are still in use today—as a reminder of the way things were in the days before IT learned to experiment.

Kevin Bolen is a senior director at the Watertown (Mass.)-based innovation consultancy, Innosight.


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